If you were recently diagnosed with HIV, chances are you're in the grip of some pretty strong emotions. Denial. Anger. Despair. Grief.
That's perfectly normal. It may take you some time to work through those negative feelings. That's perfectly normal, too.
But make sure you don't stay in the grip of negative emotions forever.
HIV today is not a death sentence. It is a chronic, manageable disease. Although you are going to have to take care of your HIV for the rest of your life, it probably is not going to kill you. Nobody lives forever, of course. But most people living with HIV today will probably die of something else.
So does it make sense to go through life with your head down, always expecting the worst? No! You have one life to live, just like everybody else. And the only thing that makes sense is to live it to the fullest!
Here are some suggestions:
1. Get the virus under control.
If you are HIV-positive, the first step in living life to the fullest is to get the virus under control. This is not a do-it-yourself project! You need the help of an experienced HIV doctor. Not just any doctor will do. HIV treatment is very complex and it changes all the time. Make sure your doctor is an HIV specialist.
If you're newly infected, you may not need to take HIV medicines for a while. But you need a doctor anyway, to monitor your viral load and T-cell count. Even though you may be feeling fine, you should have your viral load tested every 3-4 months, and your T-cell count measured every 3-6.
Unless you are one of the lucky few, eventually you will need to go on medications. When you do start taking the drugs, make sure you take them faithfully! Today's HIV medicines are much easier to take and much more tolerable than the medications available just a few years ago. Many people can control their HIV with just one pill that they take just once a day. But no pill works unless you take it! And missing doses of HIV medication can result in drug resistance. So be sure to take your meds on time, every time. When it comes to HIV medications, you can't afford to miss a dose.
2. Make up your mind who you're going to tell and who you're not going to tell. And then, move on.Everybody with HIV has to make up his or her own mind about who they are going to tell they have the disease. Some don't tell anybody. Some tell only their family and closest friends. Some tell everyone.
The right choice for you is the choice that feels right for you. Yes, HIV still has a tremendous stigma. If you disclose your HIV status, some people will shun you for it. You might even put your job in jeopardy. (The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents employment discrimination against people with HIV, but don't count on it. If someone wants to fire you, they can find another excuse.)
The only people you absolutely must tell are those you plan to have sex with. Beyond that, you have a right to medical privacy. It's the law.
So make up your mind-and then make up your mind to be happy with your decision.
If you decide not to disclose, fine! Don't tell anybody, and if anybody asks, say "Hell, no!" Say it like you mean it-and don't lose any sleep over it. Nobody has any business asking in the first place.
On the other hand, if you decide to tell everyone, then tell them, and let the chips fall where they may.
Telling just a few people is the hardest option. (Once you've told one person, you can never be sure who they will tell.)
It's your choice. Make the choice, and move on. In any case, HIV shouldn't define who you are! It is a part of who you are-but it's not the whole package by any means.
3. Find something you want to do, and go after it.One of the greatest pleasures of human life is setting yourself a worthwhile goal, and then going after it.
Setting yourself a goal is something only you can do for yourself. Do you want to start a business? Help people less fortunate than yourself? Go back to school and get your degree? Only you know your own true heart's desire. Only you really know what "living life to the fullest" means to you.
Your goal may be HIV-oriented. Many people with HIV find helping others with HIV tremendously empowering. Or, your goal may not have anything to do with HIV at all.
Set yourself a goal, and try to do something every day that moves you a little bit closer to making it a reality. There's nothing better than having a sense of purpose-knowing exactly what you want to do, and moving in that direction!
4. Get some exercise!One of the most powerful things you can do for your own health and general well-being is to get regular exercise.
What can exercise do for you? To start with, it can lower your risk of virtually every kind of disease you can mention.
Here's just a partial list of what exercise can protect you from: heart attack, stroke, hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, obesity, depression, dementia, osteoporosis, gallstones, diverticulitis, falls, erectile dysfunction, peripheral vascular disease, and twelve different kinds of cancer.
And, exercise is the best known remedy for lipodystrophy, a maldistribution of body fat that sometimes affects people with HIV.
It used to be that doctors were afraid to let heart patients exercise. Now they know better. Exercise is essential for everybody. Today, heart attack patients are in bed barely half a day before their doctors have them up and moving around.
On top of everything else, exercise releases hormones called "endorphins" that make you feel good and increase your sense of well-being.
What kind of exercise should you do? Ideally, a combination of aerobic exercise, like walking, jogging or bicycling, resistance exercise or weight training, and stretching.
Does exercise have to be a chore? Absolutely not! Sports are supposed to be fun! Find a sport or activity you enjoy, and do that! It doesn't matter if it's shooting hoops, throwing a Frisbee or dancing. The more you enjoy your chosen activity, the more likely you'll keep doing it!
5. Look after your heart.Don't let heart problems stop you from living life to the fullest. The number one health problem and leading cause of death in the United States is heart disease, so it's important for everyone to do what they can to protect their heart.
If you're on HIV meds-especially if you're on a regimen that includes a Protease Inhibitor-ask your doctor for a complete cholesterol check, which is also called a "lipid panel." Some HIV medications can raise your LDL ("bad cholesterol") levels along with your triglycerides-another fatty substance in the blood which can contribute to heart disease. If your cholesterol and triglycerides are high, your doctor may prescribe a class of drug called "statins" to help bring them down. In any case, you can help keep your cholesterol under control by learning about nutrition and eating a diet that is low in saturated fats and high in fiber. Exercise also helps keep your cholesterol levels under control.
6. Keep your bones strong.
A recent study showed that people living with HIV are more likely to get osteoporosis (brittle bones) than those who are HIV-negative. So make sure you get plenty of exercise, which strengthens bones, as well as plenty of calcium and vitamin D.
Your skin makes vitamin D naturally when exposed to the sun, but most people don't get enough sun exposure to meet their needs. Similarly, calcium is available in dairy products, but many people don't get enough. You might want to consider a calcium and vitamin D supplement to make sure you're getting what you need.
7. Eat healthy food.
Good nutrition is important for anyone who wants to live life to the fullest. But what exactly does "good nutrition" mean?
It means eating more foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber-like fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. And it means eating less foods that are high in calories but nutritionally empty-like sugary soft drinks, donuts and candy. And still fewer foods that can clog your arteries, like saturated fats and transfat.
Of course, we all know that broccoli is good for you and potato chips are not. But, if you really want to live life to the fullest, you need more nutrition information than that-and you need to act on it.
You may find it worth your while to consult with a nutritionist or dietitian-especially one who specializes in working with people with HIV. You can also visit mypyramid.gov on-line for a good basic eating plan recommended by the U.S. government.
8. Keep your chin up!
One of the greatest risks you face as a person living with HIV is depression. Don't let it get you!
If you really feel down in the dumps-especially if you have thoughts of suicide-get help from your doctor. Anti-depressant medications can help bring you out of it. So can psychological counseling. Support groups can keep you from feeling all alone. Exercise is also a highly effective anti-depressant.
Even if you're not depressed, you need to make sure you keep your eye on the prize. When was the last time you read a motivational book, or watched a really inspiring movie? Everybody need a little mental "pick-me-up" now and then. Read up on the subject of "positive thinking"-widely-known positive thinking techniques like visualization and affirmation can absolutely help you live life to the fullest.
One of the keys to being happy is simply deciding to be happy. You can be happy-blissfully happy-regardless of what is going on around you.
So don't let your HIV hold you back or get you down. Make up your mind to live life to the fullest! Take care of your virus, your body and your mind, and you can live a long, full, fantastic life with HIV!
Copyright 2015, Positive Health Publications, Inc.
This magazine is intended to enhance your relationship with your doctor - not replace it! Medical treatments and products should always be discussed with a licensed physician who has experience treating HIV and AIDS!